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Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am very grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I shall confine myself to the two important themes enunciated by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth.
I endorse entirely the wording and the spirit of the single criterion that he specified, which are very similar to those that I have used on many occasions in this House: not least, our scrutiny of secondary legislation; Europe-derived legislation; and the necessity, to which I referred earlier and now repeat, that Opposition parties and Cross-Benchers should be properly resourced and equipped to do their work. After all, the Government in the nature of things will not be able to scrutinise themselves. I believe that if the Norton criterion is put to the report of the Leader's Group and to the report of the Procedure Committee in its present form, it will pass. I am quite happy to be judged by that question alone.
The noble Viscount asked what should be done at the end of the trial period. I remind your Lordshipsthe noble Lords, Lord Barnett and Lord Peston, are quite rightthat this came from page 1, paragraph 4 of the original report, which is in bold for a specific purpose: its importance is recognised. Your Lordships will remember that this was not a committee of placemen, nor a committee with a government majority. The noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde, Lord Waddington and Lord Roper, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, served on the committee. It was a unanimous report. Paragraph 4 of the report states:
The noble Viscount's question was: what should be the procedure at that stage? It is a perfectly legitimate question. I anticipate that I would suggest that we have as wide a debate as possible with the opportunity for Members of the House, who, after all are the people who matter herethis is a House matter essentiallyto say whether or not they found the changes acceptable. Nothing could be fairer and more transparent than that.
I advise Members of the Committee not to bind themselves today inevitably to returning to the Procedure Committee. That occurred to me long before my noble friend Lord Peston pointed out the slight internal inconsistency of members reviling in vigorous termsnot of course in words of asperity, but getting close to itthe quality of the Procedure Committee but of insisting almost simultaneously that the Procedure Committee was the beast which should be entrusted with this work.
My advice to the Committee is to see how we get on after the two-year period. We can then discuss among ourselves what we want to do. But let us keep the situation flexible and at least try to make changes work to the benefit of the House.
My question for the noble and learned Lord is: exactly what does "pre-legislative scrutiny" amount to? Are they just weasel words to cover up a shortening of procedures? Or do they meansomething which I would personally very much welcomea pre-legislative examination of every Bill, which could then be thrown back in the event that it sinned through being incomprehensible either in whole or in partI should like that to be regarded as a vice fatal to a Billor was the product of the bad habit of incorporating three, four or five Bills in one cover under one title, which would similarly be regarded as an offence? If that kind of provision was covered by "pre-legislative" scrutiny, I would be very much in favour of it. If there was some other hidden reason, I would be less keen.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am always happy to oblige the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. His questions about pre-legislative scrutiny attach themselves appropriately to subsequent groups of amendments. I can perhaps more helpfully reply at that stage.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: I have no faith in trial periods; I have no faith in trial periods ever coming to an end. I am glad that this one is to be limited to two years. But at the end of the two years its success or failure should be discussed by the Procedure Committee whose job it is to make recommendations to the House on such matters. After that the trial period should be considered by the House; it should not be allowed to continue, possibly by default, on account of unfortunate timing of a discussion in this House such as the last day before the holidays when many noble Lords may already have left. It is important that this issue is given proper consideration with plenty of time allowed. I do not have any faith in that happening unless it goes back to the Procedure Committee.
Lord Trefgarne: I share the concerns that have been expressed. However, the noble and learned Lord saidI hope that I understood him correctlythat he did not rule out the possibility of this matter returning to the Procedure Committee at the end of the trial. That is highly desirable. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: During our discussions in the Procedure Committee, there was some surprise among members that we had so little information about the cost and other resource implications of the proposals before us.
I understand that the budget, as it applies to the costs of your Lordships' House and of the other place, is not cash limited. That is no doubt so. Nonetheless, it is imprudent for us to proceed with bringing in these proposals and for the Chairman of Committees to bring his report before the House without our really having any idea of what the costs might be. I accept at once that in the short time the Procedure Committee had available to carry out its work it was not possible to make the necessary calculationsin detail in any eventalthough I know that our officials did their best.
Lord Crickhowell: I made it perfectly clear to my colleagues on the committee that, like a number of noble Lords who spoke on the previous amendment, I was dismayed by the way in which our business was conducted. I must make it equally clear to the House, which may otherwise be under the impression that the report before us provides reliable guidance based on a full and adequate examination of the issues, that it does not.
There are two objections to that remarkable revelation about the way in which the business of Parliament is conducted. Experience tells us that even if resources are provided they may be inadequate or their arrival may be long delayed. Certainly, that has been the case with the European sub-committees which have had to struggle on for long periods with too few research assistants.
More important is an objection of principle, raised with vigour by my noble friend Lord Caithness during our proceedings. He argued that it was wholly wrong that we should take decisions that might have substantial cost implications without any examination of the costs or the way in which they were to be met. If I had attempted to run the business of the National Rivers Authority in that manner, the department and the National Audit Office would have assailed me, and the Public Accounts Committee would have torn me in little shreds. If any commercial company ran its business in the same way it would not survive for more than a few weeks.
Whatever may have been the practice in the past, it seems to me shocking that Parliament should still operate in that way. For that reason, I shall certainly vote for the amendments standing in the names of my noble friends Lord Trefgarne and Lord Caithness and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy.
I must make it clear that there are a good many proposals that I can support. Because some of us dug in our heels and pressed our points, and because the Leader of the House sensibly accepted amendmentsI thank him for his wise and pragmatic approach on several issuesthere are sensible suggestions that I can accept. For example, with two exceptions, the carry-over proposal is close to a form that would be acceptable and would avoid the damaging consequences that many of my noble friends have identified as being inherent. The exceptions are: any satisfactory assurance that pre-legislative scrutiny should normally (certainly with important Bills) involve both Houses; and the time limit proposed by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I think that we should insist on those points when individual carry-over Motions are moved.
I want to deal with two particular issues where the examination of practicalities and resource implications has been disastrously inadequate. The first concerns the proposals about which my noble friend Lord Peyton asked a question: the proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny. The second concerns the proposal that we should rise in mid-July and sit regularly in September.
I am totally in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny. However, I am also a member at present on the Joint Committee on scrutiny of the Communications Bill and, with my colleagues on that committee, I have been learning some practical lessons about what is involved. I cannot think of any task in which I have been involved which has involved such a heavy workload. The quantity and complexity of the evidencewritten, oral and the 500 submissions received on our websitehas been immense. If the
On this occasion, the problems have been just about overcome. But if several Joint Committees are meeting at the same time on important Bills they will be very great indeed. And do not imagine that Committee stages will be shorter than in the past. Because of the weight of evidence provided and the many questions identified, I am confident that the Committee stages are likely to be longer. I do not believe that we should leave it to ad hoc future arrangements for these formidable resource and business management problems to be resolved. The report of the Joint Committee on the communications Bill which will be published next Wednesday morning will contain some tough words about the things that the departments got wrong on this occasion and will suggest some essential ground rules for the future. We should not support the recommendation of the Procedure Committee until we have much more satisfactory guarantees that the resource and business management arrangements will be dealt with adequately and proper ground rules are in place. Here are further reasons for voting for the amendments.
My general prejudice against September sittings on a regular basis arises from reasons well set out by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, in the May debate, and I need not repeat them. Paragraph 27 of the committee report recommends that the House can reach this decision early in future Sessions. If no amendments
Unfortunately, there has been no examination of some pretty fundamental questions. Because we follow the other place in dealing with many important Bills, that is our most busy time. It is also the prime time for pre-legislative scrutiny. Surely we need to consider pretty carefully the consequences of suddenly postponing all that activity for a month and a half. It is also a very busy time for the European Union Committee and its sub-committees. At my request, the European Union Committee is now considering the impact on our consideration of European business.
At present if pre-legislative scrutiny is completed by the end of July, the Government have three months to consider the recommendations and redraft the Bill. If the scrutiny committees have to continue their work in the autumn, it is hard to see how the final Bills could be introduced before the year end. Are governments really going to be content with such long delays to their legislative programme? I doubt it. None of these subjects was considered by the Procedure Committee. We received no information about the impact on the staff of the House or about the impact on the maintenance programme, except that in the last hour of our deliberations the Clerk to the Parliaments suddenly slipped in the information that at least six months' notice would have to be given so that contractors could plan their programmes.
The report states that whether Grand Committee sittings are to be held in September when the House is not sitting is largely a matter of business management. I do not agree. In addition to the points identified as requiring resolution, we must insist on information about costs, resources and staff. My suggestion in the committee that it would be necessary to bring back quite large numbers of staff, including those in the Clerks' department, messengers and security staff and to make substantial changes to the arrangements made for visitors was not challenged. Until there has been proper consideration of all these issues, I do not think that the House should contemplate so fundamental a change in our practices. For that reason, I shall support the amendments. I hope that many others will do so. As I have explained, I shall have to be absent for much of the remainder of the proceedings. However, I shall support other amendments. If my noble friend Lord Trefgarne moves amendments about September sittings, I hope that I shall be back so that I can support the amendments which stand in my name.
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